Ken McGrath and Conor Phelan on the Kilkenny-Waterford replay and heart problems

Ken McGrath and Conor Phelan were part of the Waterford and Kilkenny panels that contested an All-Ireland semi-final in 2004. McGrath captained Waterford to that season’s Munster title. Then a student at Waterford Institute of Technology, Phelan now works there as GAA development officer. Both men have also suffered serious health issues. They chatted hurling and heart problems...

Ken McGrath and Conor Phelan on the Kilkenny-Waterford replay and heart problems

PM O’SULLIVAN:

Ken, you were part of a prior Waterford manage- ment, working with Michael Ryan as coach/selector. You’re currently over your home club, Mount Sion. What will Derek McGrath have been looking to do this week?

KM:

There’s precious little you can do on the field, really. The whole thing with players will be getting their heads right, getting them to believe again. They’re up to a fair speed of hurling and they looked incredible at times. Didn’t look nervous at all.

It’s probably just working on the positives from the last day, what went right for us. And probably the last seven or eight minutes, when they did retreat back into their shell. But that stuff happens when you’re waiting to beat a county for so long… Your natural instinct is to hold what you have.

I don’t think Waterford realised there’d be five minutes of added time. That meant holding out for eight minutes, which was way too long. You’ll get away with hitting four or five balls, without looking, up the field. You won’t get away with hitting 11 or 12 of them.

In all fairness, Kilkenny under Cody are like Manchester United under Ferguson. They’ll always keep going, and will always get a sniff of something.

CP:

That’s it. Look at even the Super Cup this week. Sevilla were 2-1 up on Real Madrid, but there were five minutes of added time called. Sevilla all rushed back. So Real got a goal to draw it. Then they won in extra time.

It’s a natural progression, filtering back when you’ve a narrow lead. It’s not a hurling thing so much as a general thing in sport.

KM:

Yeah… Waterford went totally all-out hurling against Kilkenny, 67 minutes or so. But at least we got a point ahead again, through that last free, after the Kilkenny goal.

CP:

Just on the goal: I thought it was good for Waterford that there was a pause afterwards. Wally Walsh and Stephen O’Keeffe collided, and there was a break while Stephen was down. His injury meant everyone got a breather. A quick puckout after the goal might have been a different story… Every player got a chance to settle after the big shock that a late goal always is.

KM:

That’s right. Jamie Barron was tremendous all day. Winning that last free was more of him. Sometimes, as a midfielder, you have to be doubly good to get the same recognition. Barron has all the hurling in the world. He’s something like Conor Fogarty, and very skilful. Barron is low to the ground, hard to knock, terrific sidestep.

CP:

Waterford came out with ruck ball about 70% of the time. Barron provided a lot of the stat. It wouldn’t be like Kilkenny to lose that aspect. But it shows the intensity and the pressure Waterford brought on the day. Also, Austin [Gleeson], Philip Mahony, Brick Walsh — they all caught balls over Kilkenny heads. That doesn’t normally happen either, especially over the Kilkenny half-backs.

KM:

Before the game, you’d have said the Kilkenny half-back-line is fierce strong. You’d be saying the frailties, if they’re there, might be in the full-back-line, with Shane Prendergast and Joey Holden. Didn’t work out that way at all… I think Austin and Pauric [Mahony] got 19 points from half-forward.

CP:

There seemed to be, when Waterford players went into a collision, an ability to recycle the ball to Pauric or Austin. Whereas, when a Kilkenny player went into a collision, and was getting swarmed, he was isolated. Kilkenny’s support play wasn’t up to scratch at all. I’d say Brian Cody will look at that issue in a big way.

You have to ensure support play. If you give natural ball-strikers any latitude at all, they’ll point it and hurt you. You can maybe at times leave off lads like Brick Walsh, who’s a great man but not really a scorer. But not Austin and Pauric. Kilkenny marking will have to tighten up a lot for Saturday.

KM:

After five minutes on Sunday, I could have told you it was going to be a really tight, really fine contest. The Waterford body language. The way they were bombing about the place, man on man. It showed the players trusted each other. Waterford didn’t look overawed at all. They were enjoying themselves. And that’s what we’ve all been looking for, that sense of freedom and enjoyment. But I’m sure a lot of the Kilkenny lads are saying to themselves this week, ‘I’m not allowing that to happen again next weekend…’ That’s the whole thing about replays: what’s going to happen now, after they’ve had a good look at each other?

CP:

You have the crux. Jake [Dillon] got the first Waterford point, from long range. It set the tone, put them immediately in a groove. Inspirational scores started coming. Waterford only hit two wides in the first half. Then confidence breeds more confidence.

KM:

The Waterford crowd fed off the team going 15 on 15. That’s not to be underestimated. The crowd reaction is always a wicked factor for any Waterford hurling team. Because of cutting out the sweeper and simply going for it, the crowd was involved from the word go. There was no holding back. Lads on the pitch started feeding off the crowd, getting a big lift.

CP:

You could see the same at the Munster U21 final, when Waterford got a run on Tipperary in the second half. What the seniors have, especially through the U21 contingent, is serious pace. Kilkenny might have a lack there, in a few places. Waterford definitely have real youth on their side. They have no inhibitions and can just go out and hurl.

KM:

Yes, Munster U21 was crucial. I know it’s a different grade and a different standard. But the crowd in Walsh Park was brilliant on the evening, especially after the U21s themselves went 15 on 15.

To be fair, it was a brave call by Derek [McGrath] to switch for last weekend. He was after going a certain way for two years, and it worked, to a certain degree. To make that switch in an All Ireland semi final is some going… It took fair courage to take it on. And complete faith in the boys out on the field. But it worked a treat.

PM:

Conor, you hurled with Kilkenny between 2003 and 2005, when you had to retire at 22 for health reasons. You also have a lot of experience on the sideline, going straight from having to retire as a Clara player to a selector with the club for 2015, when ye became senior champions. Where will the Kilkenny heads have been at in the run-up to this replay?

CP:

To be honest, I think the Kilkenny players might get a shot in the arm. This replay is going to be a huge game for the group. They’re all savage competitive people, whether it’s five-a-side soccer or a game of cards. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be hurlers at this level. They don’t want to lose, at anything. The ‘shot across the bows’ element in a draw will make it personal. A replay is a chance to make a personal statement too.

Kilkenny were hyped too much as huge favourites. They were blessed to get out alive. They’ll know they have to go back to basics. Wasn’t it Kilkenny’s attitude to breaking ball that made them All-Ireland champions in 2014 and ’15? Brian needs to get them together and all back singing from the same sheet. But I don’t think you’ve to reinvent the wheel. They’re fortunate to have a second go at it, but they’ll know from previous experience what’s required now.

KM:

And going for the three in a row, Conor, they won’t let that chance go down soft.

CP:

You have that aspect as well.

KM:

Anyway, replays can take on a life of their own. They can be completely different to the first day of asking. We were steeped to get a draw in the 2010 Munster final. Tony [Browne] got a goal at the death from a blocked free. Then we beat them in the replay, convincingly enough.

In 1998, when we drew with Clare in Munster, we were probably a team in the ascendancy. We probably should have won the day of the draw. But we hadn’t enough experience for the replay. That said, replays can be really good for a team’s development.

PM:

There’s a broader picture, isn’t there? This drawn game has implications for more than two counties?

KM:

To me, and I’m sure Conor would agree, the great thing is that hurling is relevant again this week. Everyone and anyone is talking about Saturday. When and where are buses going to Thurles? That hadn’t been the case. It’s been a very poor championship until now. And was last year, mostly. Last Sunday was as good a game of hurling as I’ve seen in years. It’s after igniting the whole thing once more. You kind of forget sometimes how wonderful a game hurling is. I know that sounds sort of stupid, but you do.

I was watching the Euros at times over the summer, and you’d turn over and watch the hurling. There was no vast difference in the speed and the intensity between the two matches. Before, you’d notice a big difference between soccer and hurling. But for the last few seasons…

CP:

Hurling had gone a bit stale.

KM:

There’s a problem when you win a tough ball at half back and yet you can’t get rid of it to your forwards with a quick clearance. I kept on hearing for a few years that hurling had evolved. Of course the game has to evolve. But it has to evolve in a direction that’s good for the game itself. Without trying to be smart, it has to evolve in that direction first and foremost.

Some of the hurling over the last couple of seasons was alien to what I played. And I’m only finished since 2011. Games go through phases, I suppose, sweepers and whatever. You have to accept these phases too.

PM:

On another note, both of ye underwent open heart surgery in 2014?

KM:

Yes. Mine was in April. Conor’s one was in November.

CP:

Noel Hickey went down with a virus in the summer of 2005. So we all got a scan. My problem showed up. Cormac McAnallen died in 2004, out of the blue. So you’d always wonder about that tragedy, and your own luck. The scan showed I’d a faulty valve, and that this aneurysm was getting wider and wider. So I had to give up with Kilkenny.

If you’re playing with Clara, training is still difficult enough. But you can pace yourself. If you’re in with Kilkenny, you can’t say to Brian [Cody], ‘Here, listen, I think I’ll step out of this drill, this set of runs.’ So I’m just thankful for what I managed to achieve as a hurler, through having luck and being the right age to be on good teams. There were three Fitzgibbons with WIT, a senior All-Ireland, and two U21 All-Irelands. Then senior and intermediate with my club.

PM:

And you captained the intermediate All-Ireland win in 2008?

CP:

Yes, that too, in an amazing year for Kilkenny hurling. To be fair, I couldn’t ask for much more. There would always be regrets, when you have to give up something for health reasons. But I had to be sensible. Some of the lads I hurled with for Kilkenny at U21 have six, seven, eight senior All- Irelands. You’d wonder if I could have progressed with them at least some of that road. But I’m truly grateful for what I did get, which was a lot.

Basically, I was being monitored up to 2014 and it came to a stage that there was going to be a split. It was going to be like a burst pipe. So you got the pipe fixed and the valve replaced.

KM:

What kind of valve did you end up getting, Conor?

CP:

Pig’s valve.

KM:

Same as me, then. [Laughs]

PM:

Strange thought, in a sense?

KM:

Yes. I was talking to Conor about it. I was working with him for a while out in WIT. He rang me, to tell me about the operation. And I said, ‘Ah god…’ Because you’d be so nervous, of course.

CP:

You were telling me, “It’ll be like getting hit by a bus… But you’ll be grand again, in time.”

KM:

I wasn’t lying, was I?

CP:

No, you weren’t. After the operation, you’d have your phone down by the side of the bed. And you’d be at your living best to pick it up. You’re like a pure kitten. I was in ICU for three days, and someone has to do absolutely everything for you.

KM:

The sweat would be pouring off you after the operation. But you wouldn’t even be able wipe your forehead… People should talk about it, though. A chap rang me from Monaghan, only two days ago. He has to get the same operation done. He saw me on The Sunday Game and he sent a private message on Twitter. So I was able to reassure him, when he called, about what he’s facing into. Because, as I told Conor at the time, if you wake up without knowing what to expect, you’ll get the fright of your life… It’s an unbelievable operation.

CP:

Yes, totally true. I was fully fit, playing hurling up to a week beforehand. And I was absolutely wiped out afterwards. But the operation had to be done. Too dangerous, otherwise. I’m back now playing a bit of tennis and golf. It’s hard to go from being so active before to doing nothing.

PM:

Life is good again, Ken, after such a serious knock? You’ve a new daughter, I believe? And a new job, with your brother Eoin?

KM:

Yes, Izzy came along to us ten months ago. She’s our third daughter, after Céilin and Ali. I’m working with Eoin in his wholesaling business, the Mean Bean Coffee Company. Going really well, touch wood. Business life in Waterford seems to be picking up. There’s a lot of development going on, or coming on. You need all that stuff, too, to keep hurlers in the county. I suppose our Waterford team was more or less a Celtic Tiger team, because of when we hurled. I’m hoping this new team, under Derek McGrath, is a sign that things might be picking up on all fronts.

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